Tzaraat was an affliction of the skin (or clothing or house) discussed extensively in the Bible (notably the Torah portions of Tazria and Metzora) that would cause the sufferer to become impure and be isolated or “quarantined” from the community. Many have speculated as to the exact nature of this malady, which is commonly translated as “leprosy” (or Hansen’s disease, as it is termed in modern medicine).

It seems that the first to translate tzaraat as leprosy is the Septuagint, which translates it as aphe lepras, i.e.,“a plague of leprosy.”

But how accurate is the Septuagint?

The Talmud records that the sages translated the Torah into Greek (referred to as the Targum Hashivim for the seventy sages that translated it). However, the original translation did not survive, and the Septuagint (“Translation of the Seventy”) that is in existence today is not the same translation as the Targum Hashivim. As such, it is in no way authoritative.

Interestingly, according to many historians, the disease known as leprosy only made its way to the Middle East around the time the Septuagint was written.1

So what was tzaraat? Let’s compare it to leprosy to find out.

Key Differences Between Tzaraat and Leprosy

Although tzaraat was an affliction of the skin and the person afflicted would be isolated, unlike leprosy, the isolation of the metzora (one who had tzaraat) had nothing to do with contagion.

In fact, according to Jewish law, if one got possible signs of tzaraat during a holiday or the week of his or her wedding, then the priest (who was required to rule whether it was indeed tzaraat and the person was therefore impure) would postpone checking it and ruling on it until after the holiday or wedding.2 If the isolation was due to a concern about contagion, you would think that, on the contrary, the priest would rule on it quickly and not allow the person to mingle with others until deemed to be in the clear.

An additional law concerning tzaraat is that if it covered the entire body, then the person was actually considered pure.3 If it were leprosy, then it would be more concerning if the condition was more severe.

Also, unlike leprosy, tzaraat could affect clothing and houses. And if a house got tzaraat, one could remove all the items from the house before it was declared impure, allowing the items to remain pure.4 Again, if the concern was contagion, you’d think that the items of the house would be deemed to have tzaraat.

Moreover, the ailment itself presented differently from leprosy. Tzaraat was only an external malady that did not affect the person any deeper than their skin.5 Also, the many incidents in the Bible indicate that tzaraat was a temporary affliction,6 whereas leprosy is generally chronic. (Although modern medicine now has a cure for leprosy, even nowadays treatment takes at least six months,7 much longer than many of the incidents in the Bible.)

It is no wonder then that the great Jewish philosopher, commentator and translator Rabbi Saadia Gaon (9th century C.E.), despite knowing about leprosy, simply translates tzara’at as baratz, “whiteness of the skin,” in the Tafsir, his Arabic translation of the Bible.

So What Is It?

The sages explain that tzaraat was actually a supernatural affliction that would usually come about due to a number of sins,8 most notably the sin of speaking lashon hara, evil speech.

Maimonides describes how this came about, as well as why the person afflicted had to be isolated:

This change that affects clothes and houses, which the Torah described with the general term of tzaraat, is not a natural occurrence. Instead, it is a sign and a wonder prevalent among the Jewish people to warn them against lashon hara. When a person speaks lashon hara, the walls of his house change color. If he repents, the house will be purified. If, however, he persists in his wickedness until the house is destroyed, the leather implements in his house upon which he sits and lies change color. If he repents, they will be purified. If he persists in his wickedness until they are burnt, the clothes he wears change color. If he repents, they will be purified. If he persists in his wickedness until they are burnt, his skin undergoes changes and he develops tzaraat. This causes him to be isolated and for it to be made known that he must remain alone so that he will not be involved in the talk of the wicked, which is folly and lashon hara . . .9

Tzaraat Nowadays

The first Chabad Rebbe, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, explains that people nowadays are no longer afflicted with tzaraat since it only occurred when the people were on a higher, more sensitive spiritual level.10

Interestingly enough, the Moshiach himself is called in the Talmud chivara devei Rebbi, “the leper of the house of Rebbi.”11 (To read the reason for this, see Why Is Moshiach called a Metzora (Leper)?)

May we merit the coming of the Moshiach, when all will be healed, speedily in our days!